Largely invisible to casual surfers, a bitter jihad is being waged on the Internet between Islamic extremists and their foes in the West. Like most conflicts, it has both tactical and strategic aspects. It's the tactical ones that are periodically visible to most of us, the most recent, and gruesome, example being the videotaped beheading of American businessman Nick Berg.
For a few years now, major Islamic terror groups such as Al Qaida and Hamas have used the Internet as a secure and virtually instantaneous means of communication. And, of course, for propaganda.
The Berg tape clearly was part of the propaganda effort, though it's hard to be certain of its intent, beyond the obvious horror it inspired in this country. Osama bin Laden also uses the Web as one tool for spreading his frequent audio and video tapes, which of course also get exposure on TV and radio.
Robert Spencer, in a piece for FrontPageMagazine.com, notes that,
"Paradoxical as it may be for a movement generally regarded as anti-modern, in the World Wide Web radical Muslims have found their most congenial method of communication. It satisfies their need for secrecy and concealment more effectively than any other medium, and allows them to transmit messages around the globe instantaneously. Al-Qaeda itself, as well as other terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hizballah, operates websites that not just to issue threats and other public statements, but to, in the words of the Net watchdog site Internet Haganah, “distribute official messages and communiqués; recruit and indocrinate new members’ communicate with forces that are distributed globally; and train in methodology and educate in ideology.
"The sprawling and anarchic nature of the Web makes it easy to operate: just put up a site, run it until it is closed down, and then put it up again somewhere else."
”There are hundreds of these websites, and new ones appear every day,” Egyptian political analyst Hassan Abu Taleb told Cam McGrath of the Inter Press Service. ”They spread a very negative and incorrect image of Islam.”
"Most jihad sites operate as Islamic news portals or mouthpieces for terrorist organisations," McGrath says. "They purport to expose persecution of Muslims and highlight actions taken by Muslims against those seen as oppressors.
"The sites often contain 'photos and movies for propaganda and training, including "how to" instructions on everything from bomb making to firing weapons of all types, to hand-to-hand combat,' says Brian Marcus of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL). …
"One jihad site recently posted an Al-Qaeda strategy paper that calls on Islamic militants worldwide to 'turn the lands of the infidels into hell.' ”
"The document identifies Jews and Christians as primary targets, describing itself as 'diplomacy written in blood, decorated with body parts and perfumed with gunpowder.' ”
In short, the criminal lunatics we have come to know so well in recent years.
But returning to Spencer's point, the fact that these folks espouse a doctrine that is repulsive to our eyes doesn't make them stupid. Whatever else they may have been, the plotters who hijacked four U.S. airliners on 9/11 and rammed these people-filled bombs into the World Trade Center, The Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania were not dumb. Their ability to bend the Web to their purposes underscores the truth that they're willing to take what they can from the modern world in their campaign to destroy it.
In a piece for National Review two years ago, James Robbins observed that, "It is worth remembering that the Internet was originally conceptualized as a means of establishing and maintaining command and control during nuclear conflict or some other major disruption, so al Qaeda and its sympathizers are using the system in the manner it was intended. In one of his videos last fall, Osama bin Laden made light of the idea that the videotapes themselves were his means of transmitting operational orders, given the availability of secure communications via e-mail, FTP and the web. PGP-encrypted e-mails and files are difficult to break, and the terrorists also make use of the technique of steganography, in which information is hidden inside digital images. (It makes you wonder when you stumble across a site like aljihad-online.net, which contains pictures of young Arab men with no explanation why they are there.)"
But as Spencer notes, many of these hate sites are experiencing a shorter life span these days because of the efforts of Aaron Weisburd, who runs a site called Internet Haganah (the Haganah was the underground military arm of the Jewish resistance during British rule of the Palestine Mandate before the founding of Israel). Weisburd's tactic is to monitor suspected jihad sites, which almost inevitably violate the terms of service of their internet service providers. Then he turns up the heat on the ISPs to shut the sites down. And it works. Usually, when ISPs are made aware of what the sites are posting – explicit incitement to kill "infidels" and so forth – the take the sites down. The sites' owners, of course, move them to another host. But Weisburd's efforts are disruptive and waste terrorists time and money, so he keeps at it.
This week, he was particularly satisfied that a Malaysian ISP that has been in his crosshairs for some time now finally caved.
"For two years now we have been herding the most noxious of jihadist websites out of the USA, then out of Europe, and one by one they ended up being hosted by webserver.com.my, aka Acme Commerce. Many of these sites are clearly linked to the world's leading terrorist organizations, most notably Al Qaida and Hamas," Weisburd says.
This week, Acme Commerce claimed it had previously been unaware of the content and took down no fewer than 15 sites linked to Al Qaida, Hamas and other terrorist groups.
"In the war against terrorist use of the internet, this is a very big moment, and everyone who has contributed to or participated in the pursuit of these sites over the last two years is invited to get up from their seat for a moment and take a bow," Weisburd writes.
I'll deal with the strategic side of the web jihad – the effort by Muslim extremists to infiltrate critical computer systems in the U.S. and elsewhere in order to disrupt civil and economic life – next week.